Classic Essays

Morgan, White, and Boas

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Majority versus minority anthropology

ANTHROPOLOGY, which is the study of ethnicity and race, is itself a creation of race. The present-day American anthropologist who does not trace his spiritual ancestry back to “Papa Franz” Boas cannot expect to win any remunerative reputation in his field. He has to hang on to the poorest job like a dog hangs on to a bone. Nevertheless, though he seldom knows it, or cannot afford to know it, there is another and entirely separate tradition of anthropology, apart from the Boasian and academic one, in which he can feel racially at home. The legitimate and true ancestor of American cultural anthropology, and the one who currently is paid the least respect in our centers of higher learning, is Lewis Henry Morgan (pictured).

The first American anthropologists, who were Anglo-Saxon observers of the Indian, saw before them only a wide continent full of wonders. Untutored in academic politics, they practiced the old but now discredited method of describing what they saw.

Lewis Henry Morgan was not a professor. Of upstate New York farm background, he had large, intelligent blue eyes and blond hair and was fascinated by the Indians who still lived in his region. A natural scholar, but, shunning an academic career, he lived among and observed Indians while earning his living at law. In every respect he became the model of an important, successful, and influential patrician.

As for Morgan’s main intellectual accomplishments, he wrote the first ethnographic monograph The League of the Iroquois. Till then there had been no single book devoted to a comprehensive and systematic study of one people. Consequently, Morgan opened up an entirely new dimension in anthropology. But there is much more. Morgan was the person who singlehandedly invented the descriptive science of kinship which has become a cornerstone of European social anthropology and has made inroads even in America. No modern ethnographic study would be complete without a survey of kinship organization, which is now recognized as the basis of primitive social organization. Finally, Morgan wrote a monumental study of the rise of human civilizations called Ancient Society, which set forth for the first time the fundamentals of social or technological materialism.

Morgan pleaded the cause of the dispossessed Indians of New York State. Being a type of man decidedly higher than Negroes, they now evoke a certain sympathy. Morgan also theorized about a world utopia. But this was a paradise of the remote future no more obnoxious than the Christian heaven (which even in the South is conceived of as a place where Negroes have a place). In his practical political viewpoint Morgan was a Whig and conservative. These considerations should, when Morgan is compared with such a person as Franz Boas, obviate Friedrich Engels’ blanket description of Morgan as a forerunner of communism.

Morgan was by no means a consistent political thinker. He opposed the South and slavery for reasons that seem strange today. He was against slavery mainly because its continued existence and spread meant the further existence and spread of Negroes. A Morgan biographer, Carl Resek puts it this way:

During the debate in Congress over the Compromise of 1850, Morgan expressed the not uncommon sentiment of Negrophobia, based partially on the belief that the Negro was a separate species. He urged Seward to limit the expansion of slavery because “it is time to fix some limits to the reproduction of this black race among us. It is limited in the north by the traits of the whites. The black population has no independent vitality among us. In the south while the blacks are property, there can be no assignable limit to their reproduction . . It is too thin a race intellectually to be fit to propagate and I am perfectly satisfied from reflection that the feeling towards this race is one of hostility throughout the north. We have no respect for them whatever.

Boas’ Failings

Morgan’s works, written before those of Boas, were greatly respected in America in his own time and continue to be highly regarded in Europe. How then is it possible to say, as is said continually by present-day academicians, that Franz Boas is “the father of American anthropology?”

Compared to the major contributions of Lewis Morgan, the only concrete accomplishment of Franz Boas that has ever been suggested, apart from the highly intangible quality of “being a genius,” is that he “championed the cause of human rights” and was a “careful field worker.” The facts are that Boas’ flairless writing and literary stylelessness contain no real ideas at all. In short, he has nothing to say. But paradoxically these very faults have insulated him all these years from serious criticism. It is precisely the vapidity of his writing which protects him. Even his apologists — and he has many more apologists than advocates — admit this. The critic, as he digs into Boas, is not devastated by some powerful literary or ideological cannon whose exploding missile annihilates everything in its way. The Boas defense strategy is quite different. The critic is put to sleep. Papa Franz’s writings anesthetize as they dogmatize. His dull quality acts as a wall or fortress around his ideas, or non-ideas. Once he breaches the fort, the critic is embarrassed to find that there is nothing at all inside.

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Franz Boas

Leslie A. White, former chairman of the Anthropology Department of the University of Michigan, has recently given us the most courageous published attack on Boas, although as in all his academic papers he never really takes off his gloves. Here is what the lone reviewer says of White’s The Social Organization of Ethnological Theory: “Nothing at all has been gained by trumpeting that Boas and most of his early disciples were Jewish … White explicitly states that he will probably be labeled as being anti-Semitic for reading sociological significance into the Judaic affiliations of prominent anthropologists …. As sure as God made little green apples, White is going to be misunderstood on this point.”

White anticipates the charge against him in a footnote: “I have discovered upon more than one occasion that merely to mention that a scholar is a Jew is to expose one’s self to the suspicion — or accusation — of anti-Semitism.” White evokes our gratitude and respect by not particularly bending over backward to repudiate this charge, saying that he had brought up the subject of Jews “upon more than one occasion.” White unfortunately knows the politics of his own field too well, as he demonstrates by paying too much respect to Emile Durkheim, another sacred Semitic cow in academic anthropology. Also it should be mentioned that White now has his career behind him, a career indeed built partially on conventional liberalism. Only now does he “risk” a poke at Boas. Earlier he had even written a work acclaiming him. But the little good White has done at the end of his life, picked up and carried on by serious Majority scholars, will compensate for the harm he did during most of his life. By this simple gesture he has carried a flicker of the old spirit forth into the new age.

It is not enough to warrant our respect, says White in his Social Organization of Ethnological Theory, that Boas was a “powerful, charismatic teacher.” Boas indeed seems not to have been an attractive or charismatic person at all; but a petty academic politician. Those coming under his spell were all minority types and women. He had little effect on Majority males, who in order to survive in academia have always toed the political line. The primary consideration for White, and the one that would warrant the interest of intelligent students of society, is whether or not Boas actually ever wrote anything worth the paper it was printed on. We saw how Lewis Morgan figured in the history of ideas by virtue of what he thought and wrote, even if some of his work was open to a socialist interpretation. Boas, on the other hand, must be evaluated entirely on his stand on “human rights,” that is to say, on nothing that cannot also be ascribed to millions of trite sentimentalists. The net effect of the Boas “influence” has therefore been negative. It has retarded and inhibited the development of American anthropology.

White is careful to list the mass of unrelated and undigested facts that Boas has given us, and to mention that Boas consistently, or rather inconsistently, repudiated theory and generalizations. Boas challenged the evolutional view of society as “abstract,” when actually he was jealous of the reputation of Lewis Henry Morgan. Boas prided himself in sticking to the bare facts. “It is no wonder,” says White, “that Konrad Preuss, while acknowledging the unique amplitude of Boas’ work, wondered what it all meant.” From here on out, however, the lay reader may have trouble discerning what a professional anthropologist would easily recognize — that is, White’s total rejection of Boas’ work as worthless. For instance, an ethnologist doing extensive work among a tribe or people should have some idea what the social organization of that group is. That Boas had no such idea is a professionally unforgivable failure. Noting that Boas did most of his field work among the Kwakiutl, a Northwest Coast tribe, White says:

If the Kwakiutl did have clans, were they exogamous or not? In 1890, Boas believed that the clans were exogamous. A year later he reported: “The gentes are not exogamous.” Within a few years, however, he decided that the clans were exogamous.

Were the Kwakiutl patrilineal or matrilineal? Boas had trouble here, also. In a report on his investigations in 1888, he says that a child follows his father’s gens “as a rule . . . but he may also acquire his mother’s gens.” A year or so later Boas decided that the Kwakiutl were in a transitional stage “from maternal to paternal institutions …” Finally Boas concludes, “The social organization of the Kwakiutl is very difficult to understand.”

The list of “facts” presented by Boas, which were subsequently shown to be totally erroneous, goes on and on. Yet the remarkable thing is that Boas bases his claim for a professional reputation on careful field observation. He does so to the extent of claiming to be the first American field worker when Lewis Henry Morgan had preceded him in this sphere by decades.

White, after pointing out that a major portion of Boas’ writings was admittedly written by two Indians “under Boas’ direction,” goes on to say:

Boas’ historical reconstructions are inferences, guesses, and unsupported assertions — his own or those of his informants. They range from the probable through the possible to the preposterous. Almost none is verifiable except [with the help of a] very general assumption …

Boas’ penchant for positive and dogmatic utterance may have helped his disciples to believe that he insisted upon ‘absolutely established fact’ and ‘strict proof.’ Phrases such as ‘can not be explained in any other way,’ ‘only one explanation of this fact is possible,’ ‘these facts that cannot be disputed,’ ‘But I insist…’ are not uncommon in his writings.

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Leslie A. White

It should always be kept in mind that, like the anthropologist he most admires, Lewis Henry Morgan, White gives vent to opinions, even if only on rare occasions, that would suggest socialist leanings. Scholarly conventions have been given in Moscow in honor of Lewis Morgan, and White has attended them almost as a guest of honor. But recent history has dramatically shown that socialism and racism are not inevitable adversaries. On the other hand, capitalism has probably done its best, in the name of cheap labor, to undermine the white work force. White cannot automatically be dismissed as a pro-minority liberal just because he is a socialist. Even if we think little of socialism as an economic system, the vital issue of the day is that of race. On this point White has gone out on a limb — our limb — as he continues his assault on Boas:

The Mind of Primitive Man [Boas’ reputed master work] is largely concerned with the subject of race and its relation to mental ability and to cultural development. It also contains an attack upon, and a rejection of, theories of cultural evolution. Anthropology and Modern Life consists of essays on various aspects of modern Western society and culture: race, nationalism, eugenics, criminology, education, etc. It ignores completely one of the most fundamental and important factors in modern culture, namely, the industrial and fuel revolution and its impact upon social, political, and economic institutions. . .

Boas’ distinctions between race, nationality, language, and culture were designed to oppose the racist doctrines of Gobineau and Houston Stewart Chamberlain, and of later writers such as Madison Grant (The Passing of the Great Race, 1916) and Lothrop Stoddard (The Rising Tide of Color, 1920), and no doubt they had a salutary effect in certain quarters. But we may well question the value of his contribution to the problems of race conflict.

Boas, who was “of Jewish extraction”… had been intensely concerned with anti-Semitism since his “formative years.” He wrote voluminously on racial problems, as did some of his prominent students. As have argued elsewhere (1947), however, he never got to the heart of the matter. Much of his argument was based upon anthropometry and anatomy, which were largely irrelevant because race prejudice and conflict do not arise from lack of knowledge of facts of this sort. In addition to citing anatomical evidence, Boas postulated a psychological basis of race prejudice: “The prejudice is founded essentially on the tendency of the human mind to merge the individual in the class to which he belongs, and to ascribe to him all the characteristics of his class.” (Boas, 1945, pp. 77-8). Boas did “not wish to deny that the economic conflict may be a contributing cause…. It would, however, be an error to seek in these sources the fundamental cause of the antagonism; for the economic conflict ….. presupposes the social recognition of the classes” (ibid., p. 79). What then is the remedy? The “only fundamental remedy ….. is the recognition that the Negroes have the right to be treated as individuals, not as members of a class” (ibid). This is undoubtedly true, but it is also a tautology. “Strong minds” might “free themselves from race prejudice …” but “the weak-minded will not follow their example” (ibid, p. 80). Education, Boas reasons, cannot “overcome the general human tendency of forming groups that in the mind of the outsider are held together by his emotional attitude toward them” (ibid., p. 79). What, then, can eradicate the conflict between races? Boas’ answer was miscegenation:

[White quotes Boas here at greater length:] “Intermixture will decrease the contrast between the extreme racial forms, and in the course of time, this will lead to a lessening of the consciousness of race distinction. If conditions were ever such that it could be doubtful whether a person were of Negro descent or not, the consciousness of race would necessarily be much weakened. In a race of octoroons, living among Whites, the color questions would probably disappear (ibid., p. 80). .. It would seem therefore, to be in the interest of society to permit rather than to restrain marriages between white men and Negro women … (ibid., p. 80). Thus it would seem that man being what he is, the Negro problem will not disappear in America until Negro blood has been so much diluted that it will no longer be recognized.”

Boas’ own contribution to American anthropology, White thinks, was negligible.

But White does give us a clue to the source of Boas’ reputation by giving us a look at the “social structure” of the Boas clique:

Let us have another look at the Boas school, the small, compact group of scholars that were gathered about the leader. The earliest were principally foreign-born or the children of immigrants. Goldenweiser was born in Kiev; Radin in Lodz; Lowie in Vienna, and Sapir in Pomerania. Kroeber’s father was born in Cologne, and his mother was American-born, of German antecedents. All were fluent in the German language. Like Boas, most were of Jewish ancestry.

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Source: Instauration magazine, January 1977

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